Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, promised Tuesday to oversee an investigation into the disappearance of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, one of his own most prominent critics, even as a U.S senator accused him of involvement in the alleged murder.
Turkish authorities meanwhile expanded their investigation, and pointed toward an official effort to cover up whatever happened to Mr. Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old who is seen as the de facto ruler of his oil-rich country, looked relaxed as he chatted with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a gold-decorated room inside one of Riyadh’s many palaces. “We are strong and old allies. … We faced a lot of challenges together in the past and today and tomorrow,” the Crown Prince told Mr. Pompeo with reporters present at the beginning of the meeting. Mr. Pompeo nodded and replied, “Absolutely.”
In Istanbul, Turkish officials told reporters that investigators working inside the Saudi consulate had found evidence that Mr. Khashoggi – a Saudi national who used his platform as a columnist for The Washington Post to criticize the Crown Prince’s crackdown on dissent – had been killed and dismembered inside the building. The investigators were granted access to the consulate for the first time on Monday, 12 days after Mr. Khashoggi went missing after visiting the consulate seeking documents that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted they had discovered an effort to tamper with possible evidence. “The investigation is looking into many things, such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting them over,” he told reporters at Turkey’s parliament.
On Tuesday, Turkish police widened their probe to include consulate vehicles and the residence of the Saudi consul-general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, who reportedly left the country on Tuesday on a flight bound for Riyadh.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Mr. Pompeo and the Crown Prince agreed “on the importance of a thorough, transparent and timely investigation that provides answers” into the fate of Mr. Khashoggi.
Mr. Pompeo, who is travelling to Ankara on Wednesday to meet his Turkish counterpart, left his meetings with Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed without any public admission that Mr. Khashoggi is dead. CNN and The New York Times reported on Monday that a deal had been struck that would see Saudi Arabia admit that Mr. Khashoggi had been killed during an interrogation gone wrong inside its consulate in Istanbul. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara had received no such information.
Instead, Saudi Arabia still publicly maintains that Mr. Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed on Oct. 2.
Posting on his Twitter account, U.S. President Donald Trump said he had spoken by phone with Prince Mohammed on Tuesday while Mr. Pompeo was in the room. Mr. Trump wrote that the Crown Prince “totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.”
Mr. Trump added that Prince Mohammed “has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”
Mr. Trump’s tweets, and the chummy mood between Mr. Pompeo and the Crown Prince, were jarringly at odds with the angry tone adopted by others in Washington. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham – a close ally of Mr. Trump and a long-time advocate of closer U.S.-Saudi relations – went as far as accusing the Saudi heir of personal involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
“Nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing it,” Mr. Graham said in an interview with Fox News, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials. “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey. ... The MBS figure is, to me, toxic. He can never be a world leader on the world stage.”
Other members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have called for the Trump administration to freeze US$110-billion worth of contracts to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia – and for the White House to join a swelling boycott of an investment conference in Riyadh that’s closely associated with the Crown Prince – pending the outcome of a full investigation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the case “extremely disturbing,” and said that the United States should find out more about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi national who lived in self-imposed exile in Virginia and contributed regular opinion columns to The Washington Post. “I can’t imagine if what we think happened, that we would take no action,” Mr. McConnell said.
Canada and several European countries – as well as the Khashoggi family and his editors at The Washington Post – have called for an impartial, international probe into Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she has been working the phones with Canada’s allies in the Group of Seven as they seek answers for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“It’s important to be very clear that, certainly for our democracies to function, but I think for the world to function, we need journalists to be able to work without fear for their lives, in safety,” she said.
Mr. Trump, whose real estate empire benefited from millions of dollars' worth of Saudi investment, has seemed reticent to get tough with Riyadh. After speaking by telephone on Monday with King Salman, Mr. Trump floated the theory that “rogue killers” could be to blame for whatever happened to Mr. Khashoggi.
The Turkish investigation points in a very different direction. Near-daily leaks of information to the Turkish and international media have painted a picture of a carefully co-ordinated operation to deal with a journalist who had obviously angered someone powerful in Riyadh.
Turkish media have published photographs of what they say is a 15-man hit squad – including an intelligence official and a forensics expert – that reportedly arrived in Istanbul just before Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. Turkish investigators are believed to have audio and video recordings of what happened inside the consulate, though those have not been made public.
With a report from David Parkinson